By Autumn Shelton, WV Press News Sharing
CHARLESTON, W.Va – Three of the state’s legislative leaders provided an update on the 2022 session during the annual West Virginia Press Association’s Legislative Breakfast last Thursday.
The Speaker of House of Delegates, Delegate Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, opened the event, addressing the media, fellow legislators and guests who had gathered in the Culture Center at the Capitol Complex for the annual update.
“We are on day 37 of 60, so It’s appropriate that we pause here for a few minutes today to talk about where we are, where we are with the legislative session, but maybe more importantly, where we are with the state and where we think this legislative session fits into the overall vision of where we are as West Virginia,” Speaker Hanshaw said.
Hanshaw said legislators have learned a lot, including the importance of remote collaboration and of having certain factors in place to spur economic development.
With the announcements made during the three-day special session, held just prior to the regular legislative session, that Nucor Steel, Green Power Motor Company and Owens & Minor would be coming to West Virginia, Hanshaw said legislators became more aware of the importance of the state’s rainy day fund, site development, worker housing and training the state’s residents for future employment.
As for the state’s rainy day fund, Hanshaw noted the fund “plays a role in recruiting and attracting corporate and private sector investment,” explaining the state’s rainy day fund is just over $1 billion. He noted that the legislature looks to pass a bill this session that would cap that rainy day fund close to where it is – at 23% of the state’s budget.
“We have one of the healthiest rainy day funds in America,” Hanshaw said. “Our bond ratings cannot go higher. Our standing on Wall Street cannot be better because we have done what corporate America looks at us to do. We have made those kinds of decisions.”
Additionally, Hanshaw said House Bill 4002, creating the Certified Sites and Development Readiness Program, is making its way through the legislative process. This bill would help the state prepare sites and get them ready for development, making them more attractive to investors.
Hanshaw also spoke of the billion dollars in federal funding that has made its way into West Virginia and stated legislators are working on bills to ensure that the state will be able to financially assist local jurisdictions in meeting matching fund requirements.
Bills to help West Virginia develop a 21st century economy are also being worked, Hanshaw said, including providing incentives for the refinement and use of rare earth minerals, providing housing, funding small business development and building infrastructure.
“We want capital to flow into West Virginia to create the kind of jobs that all men and women in our towns are seeking,” Hanshaw said.
Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D – Greenbrier, followed Hanshaw at the podium.
Baldwin noted a major focus of the legislature should be on “bringing our people home and keeping our kids here.”
“I think that’s the standard by which everything we do ought to be judged, because so many of the issues we face come back to that – a lack of population and, specifically, the brain drain of young people who leave, and too many of which do not return,” Baldwin said.
He explained the legislature should focus on making West Virginia a place where young people want to live. He said he hears complaints from young professionals that they are being driven away from the state because of lack of job opportunities, stereotyping, racism, discrimination and the substance abuse crisis.
“I’m afraid that we are risking the future by spending so much time and so much energy on so many socially divisive bills before us that protect immediate political interests, but do not protect the long term interests of West Virginia.”
He commended the work that has been done on site development and bringing companies like Nucor Steel to the state, but that those accomplishments are being “overshadowed.”
“Folks want certainty, they want to know what they are getting into,” he continued. “The problem with the social divisiveness that we see, is that it provides that very uncertainty that makes this a place folks don’t want to be to raise a family or to do business. So, that’s my concern.”
He concluded by stating the Senate plans to finish out the last few weeks of session by focusing on child well-being.
Closing the event’s legislative panel, the House Minority Leader, Delegate Doug Skaff, D – Kanawha, said every piece of legislation is created with the people of West Virginia in mind.
He added a lot of “great” bipartisan bills have been passed, but they are counterbalanced by divisive issues “that do nothing to keep people in West Virginia and bring people here.”
“We talked a lot about the larger corporations, but now we need to focus on the small businesses with 200 employees or less – the backbone of West Virginia,” Skaff said.
He mentioned the Promise Plus Program, currently in committee, which will allow state college students to get additional money if they stay in West Virginia and work. He also noted nurses and teachers in the state need to be incentivized for working and living in West Virginia.
“We need to do more,” Skaff said. “We need to help our current West Virginians first, and continue to expand opportunities.”
Lastly, Skaff said he and others are working on bills that will expand funding to address mental health issues in the state.
The event was hosted by the West Virginia Press Association in partnership with AARP WV, WVU University Relations, West Virginia International Yeager Airport, and the West Virginia Press Association Foundation.